Pastor Notes #12 — The Ministry of Meaning

A Monarch Butterfly

One of the most important things pastors can do is to help people understand the meaning of their actions and the circumstances of their lives.  Many philosophers and theologians have asserted that the ability to find meaning in the events of their lives and in the things that they do is one of the essential qualities that distinguishes human beings from other forms of life on earth.

I’m inclined to think that that assertion is true.  But whatever the case may be on that lofty theoretical level, I can say with complete confidence that on the gritty level of concrete experience we human beings have a deep and sometimes desperate hunger to find meaning in the event and actions of our lives.  I have it and so do the people I shepherd through the mundane and extraordinary circumstances of life before God.

What follows here is a letter that I wrote to a teenage girl, Lynn, after she performed a dance as part of my church’s Easter services.  She had been involved in the church throughout her childhood and youth years.  She had also struggled with life some in the years prior to this letter.  Her dance training had been one of the stabilizing factors in her life.  Recognizing that, one of our lay leaders who had developed a good relationship with Lynn asked Lynn and her dance teacher to choreography a dance piece that would work as the opening element of our Easter worship services.

In the week following Easter I wrote to thank Lynn for contributing to our worship services.  But I wanted to do something more than just thank her.  I wanted also to help her to understand the meaning of what she had done and to understand that in a larger sense than just as a personal accomplishment for herself.  She had made herself available to God, who in turn used her and her dance to accomplish things in other people’s lives.

The letter:

Thank you for helping us all worship on this past Sunday.  Dance has not been part of the worship at our church — at least not for a very long time.  I’m pretty sure you’ve never seen it in one of our worship services.  So, I can imagine that it must have made you a little nervous to do it . . . and on Easter Sunday, too!

I’m glad you didn’t let any anxious feelings stop you from doing it.  It was a real blessing to me and to many others.

I told you that I like to watch dance.  Dance is, maybe, my favorite among the performing arts.  But I’ll confess to you that I have rarely see dance done in worship in a way that I liked.  I think that may be because too often the dancers and/or the choreographers have gotten all wrapped up and carried away with trying to make every movement and action be symbolic of this or that.  Then, it all becomes very serious and very intellectual and very dull — a sort of lecture with movement instead of words.

Dance is movement.  It isn’t lecturing.  What you did was dance for us; you moved for us.  You captured the simple movement from grief to joy, which is at the heart of the story of Easter.  What you gave us was beautiful in its simplicity, focus, and clarity.

I hope you’ll dance for us again.  Our worship involves an awful lot of hearing (speech, music).  It involves a little bit of tasting (communion), a little bit of touching (holding hands, hugging).  When you dance for us, you involve both hearing (the music) and seeing (your movements).  I like involving more than one of our senses in our acts of worship.  It helps to draw us into the worship, to become part of it.

A Fancy Day Lilly

Finally, I want to let you know about something that happened at the end of the second service, because I don’t thing you saw this.  During the last hymn, a little girl, who looked to be about four years old, in a pretty, flowery, Easter dress came spinning and dancing out of the pew into the center aisle.  She danced around almost through the entire hymn.  Obviously, you inspired her.  She was doing what she’d seen you do.  She was dancing with joy before God.

Thanks for the gift you gave to that little girl and all the rest of us, too.

© 2009 Gary A. Chorpenning

Growth Track #1:  Next step–Pastor Notes #8 (9/11/2001) — Presence as Ministry


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